Tennyson by Lesley M. M. Blume is one of my favorite reads of the year. Tennyson is the haunting story of a young girl living in the south during the Depression. Tennyson and her younger sister Hattie live a wild, unencumbered life in the woods with their parents. Their lives change, however, when their mother disappears. Their father goes on a quest to find her and leaves the girls in the dubious care of their previously unknown Aunt Henrietta.
Aunt Henrietta lives in the family homestead, a crumbling mansion called Aigredoux. Henrietta has southern pride, but no money to back it up. She spends all of her time writing to various members of the government, seeking restitution for the family's losses during the Civil War. Tennyson learns first-hand about her family's Civil War history when she starts having vivid dreams, dreams that are apparently windows into actual past events. Tennyson gradually integrates the events of the past with the marks that they've left on her present-day family, and finds her own place in the story.
Tennyson is a fabulous character. She's intrepid, but seeks her mother's approval. She is so compelled to write that she does it in secret, in the middle of the night, when her aunt forbids it. She has problems in the present, but is haunted by the sins that her family committed in the past. She is extraordinary and memorable. Other characters are multi-dimensional, too, especially Tennyson's ancestor Julia and her slave, Effie. They do terrible things to each other, yet they love their families. Even the mansion, Aigredoux, feels more like a character than a setting. Blume makes the Civil War, the Depression, and the south come alive through these characters.
Blume's writing is lyrical and filled with deft descriptions. Here are just a few of my favorite passages:
"A thick rope, knotted at the bottom, dangled from a rafter above. A different family would have had a dining room table in the middle of that room. But the Fontaine family had a rope swing instead." (Chapter 1)
"Tennyson was quiet. She let Hattie ask all of the questions, as usual. Sadie used to say that Tennyson doled herself out in teaspoons while Hattie heaped herself on like a pile of sugar." (Chapter 1)
"A thousand seconds passed. Tennyson tiptoed up the splintery wooden steps of the grand staircase. There were hardly any marble ones left, and Tennyson could sense somehow that the house was embarrassed." (Chapter 7)
"All of the clocks in the house stopped ticking and the people in the portraits hanging on the walls held their breath. The world came to a standstill as Aunt Henrietta opened her letter from Washington, the answer to five generations of pleading on thousands of sheets of thin blue paper." (Chapter 13)
Don't you just love "the house was embarrassed"? And "the people in the portraits handing walls held their breath"? It's fitting for a book about a gifted young writer to be filled with such lovely passages.
Tennyson is primarily historical fiction, but there are overtones of the supernatural. The mansion seems to actively respond to the presence of Tennyson and Hattie, and Tennyson's dreams of the past border on time travel. Tennyson has a bit of the feeling of Lucy Boston's Children of Green Knowe books, and a bit of Mary Downing Hahn's creepiness. What this means is that the book is likely to work for both fans of fantasy and fans of realistic fiction. Although the main character is a girl, I think that Tennyson is quite boy-friendly (even her name is gender-neutral), with soldiers and slaves and hidden treasure.
In short, Tennyson has everything that I look for in a book: intricately woven plot; intriguing premise; three-dimensional characters; unique, atmospheric setting; and insightful, descriptive writing. Highly recommended for all readers, 9 and up.
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 8, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher (quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final book)
Other Blog Reviews: Si, se puede! Yes we can, The Reading Zone, Book Nut, Charlotte's Library, Semicolon, Knights Read Books, Red Hairings Youth Literature Review, Abby (the) Librarian, Sarah Miller
Author Interviews: Bookworm Readers, Slayground, Miss Erin, The Huffington Post, Mrs. Magoo Reads
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.